Delany's Dirt

by Ray Davis

(Published in Ash of Stars, ed. James Sallis, University Press of Mississippi)
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V. The Mad Man

Lying there, I thought: people feel guilty about wanting to do stuff like this. But this is the reward for actually doing it, for finding someone who wants to do it with you: The fantasies of it may be drenched in shame, but the act culminates in the knowledge no one has been harmed, no one has been wounded, no one has been wronged.
-- The Mad Man, p. 458
The history of sex in narrative art -- particularly of gay and lesbian sex -- is a history of double-cryptology, of codes which may be overlooked by the many, and which, when deciphered, still deliver a message reassuring to the status quo: the message of Dorian Gray's collapse, of Plato's fatal expulsion from Rebel Without a Cause's family-valued utopia, of Nightwood's helpless misery. At best, for the happiest of the happy few, that coded message itself is discarded as mere cover, and the hint of representation is enjoyed for its own sake.

But even at their most benign, the codes enable unthinking condescension like that with which Masterpiece Theater's insufferable Russell Baker dismisses E. M. Forster's "rather sad" passion for working-class men. ("And how sad is your sex life?" we mutter to the screen.) In return, such liberal condescension ensures that the codes remain firmly in place.[10]

The codes have structured brilliant pieces of art, and we have to marvel at the courage and skill needed to master them. We have to be grateful for the messages smuggled out through their agency. And we also have to remember -- as if we have a choice! -- the costs they've exacted in human lives: despair, fear, violence, suicide.... In the 1980s and 1990s, not daring to speak of the love which dares not speak its name has led to untold numbers of deaths by AIDS, through processes which Delany has often described: culturally dictated denial at both individual and institutional levels, following close on the heels of lust's irrepressible bravado ("All right, then, I'll GO to hell!").

Yes, tragedy happens to perverts. But to introduce the "perverse" into a tragic situation is by default to imply that perversion itself is to blame. A serious story involving the perverse (that is, a story in which sexual activity plays a pivotal role, since all sexual activity, closely observed, partakes of the perverse) must ensure that "perversity" in itself cannot be mistaken as the cause of a tragedy which would've been averted by some universal (and unexamined) "normal" sexuality. Or at least it must do so if it's to have any hope of disturbing the status quo.

Written twenty years after Delany's first two porn novels, The Mad Man is a very different contract of marriage between heaven and hell, between desire and the world.

The jacket copy for its first edition[11] reads:

A TRIP THROUGH THE ELECTRIFYING, FRIGHTENING DARK SIDE OF HUMAN DESIRE.... shocking, depraved sexual entanglements...
"Well, yes, sort of, but...," as one could also say of the hilariously misleading original jacket copy for Triton ("INTERPLANETARY WAR. CAPTURE AND ESCAPE. DIPLOMATIC INTRIGUES THAT TOPPLE WORLDS..."). In Delany's earlier porn, appalling acts are executed by dehumanized monsters. In The Mad Man, perversion, like other violations of taboo, is instead a profoundly humanizing act of courage.
Thinking about going over to help him, while the sun's warm fingers rubbed the back of my neck, I actually felt scared: that coldness at the throat's base when you're about to do something no one is doing, or wants to do, or would approve of if you did -- the feeling before swiping something or starting to sing on a crowded sidewalk or going over to help some homeless guy tossed out on the street.
I hate that feeling more than anything.
I walked back to the corner, stepped off the curb over black water trickling in the gutter, and squatted: "You okay?"
-- The Mad Man, p. 292
A realistic novel about promiscuous gay sex in the age of Reagan, in the first decade of AIDS -- what's shocking is not just that it's so clear-sighted, but that it's so happy. Although the book predictably quotes Yeats's "place of excrement" line, it could just as well be said to illustrate Blake's "lineaments of satisfied desire." "Am I reasonably happy or, happily, reasonable?" wonders Bron Helstrom (a fine speciman of Hogg's "normal man") in Triton. The Mad Man's narrator, John Marr, is both, thanks to behavior that many (including himself, at times) would characterize as insanely dangerous.

Not only is The Mad Man the cheeriest of Delany's novels, it's also the most straightforward. John Marr has messages to deliver, and he doesn't deliver them with ambiguity, or even with concision. Far from sounding tormented or depraved, he writes his story in an easy-going, affably convincing style even chattier than Delany's autobiographical work, larded with nods, qualifiers, repetitions, and exclamations. My first impression was of a big old friendly dog of a book, with, like many big old friendly dogs, habits and appetites which might offend the finicky.

"Yeah...!" the big guy said; and took another swallow of beer. "Ain't nothin' like peein' on a white boy, is there?" Nodding to us, he turned -- "It just makes everybody feel good, don't it?"
-- The Mad Man, pp. 165-166
The scrupulous meanness of Hogg's prose and the structural puzzles of Delany's other novels would be out of place here, in a book dedicated to the pleasure of shaping one's life -- philosophical, economic, social, and sexual life -- out of emotional and physical "messiness":
But what is inchoate in Hasler's work, from beginning to end -- what he best represents -- is the realization that large-scale, messy, informal systems are necessary in order to develop, on top of them, precise, hard-edged, tractable systems; more accurately, structures that are so informal it's questionable whether they can be called systematic at all are prerequisites for those structures that can, indeed, be recognized as systems in the first place. [...] For Hasler, the messy is what provides the energy which holds any system within it coherent and stable.
-- The Mad Man, pp. 284-285
The Hasler mentioned there, Timothy Hasler, is a (fictional) philosopher murdered in a gay hustling bar in 1973 at age 29. Seven years later, John Marr is a young scholar specializing in Hasler's work; he describes himself at the beginning of the book as:
a young, bright, moderately middle-class black kid from Staten Island [...] naively certain my thesis would be a 600-page tome on psychology, history, reality, and metaphysics, putting them once and for all in their grandly ordered relation.
-- The Mad Man, pp. 8-9
By narrating his life in Hasler studies (which turn out, in the grand philosophical tradition, to insinuate themselves into a surprisingly broad range of experiences) from 1980 through 1994, that 600-page tome is pretty much what Marr delivers -- except that it takes the form of pornographic fiction rather than academic philosophy. The result is a rare portrayal of the life-affirming pleasures of research and influence, as well as sex. Ecstatic John Marr, much more than cold-fish Jonathan Proctor, can believably say, "Metaphysics, thou hast ravished me!"

Of course, a relaxed appearance is not the same as bonelessness. This is Delany's novel as well as Marr's, so, as one would expect, it's thickly webbed with variations and reflections -- on interracial attraction, on the association of physicality and death, on the place of the intellectual and on self-styled intellectual incapacity; most of all, as Reed Woodhouse writes in "Leaving No Button Unpushed" (The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review, Fall 1994), on "the kindness of the sexually satisfied [and] the deliciousness of natural bodily secretions." And there are the expected lovely set pieces, including beyond-Al-Capp tales of life among the lowly, and two descriptions of a (very) wet bar which are so warmly enticing that I can't imagine a reader vanilla enough to resist them.

Beneath the surface attractions lies a typically audacious structure: The book's first half leapfrogs every few years from 1980 through 1990 on the backs of detailed sexual encounters, conveying on the side the history of AIDS, Marr's and his city's complex reactions to the disease, and the progress of Hasler studies. In contrast, most of the second half covers less than a month, with the final two parts (and 200 pages) of the book mostly devoted to a single week's worth of sex (with a few serious distractions along the way -- a killing, a rape), capped by publication of a rather different version of The Mad Man.

The most blatant formal device is provided by the novel's murder mystery, solved at almost the same moment as it is hopelessly replayed. But, despite its Lambda Literary Award nomination for "Best Gay Mystery," The Mad Man doesn't read like a mystery. (Although one can easily imagine, in a better world, a popular series following on the success of The Mad Man, with amateur sleuth John Marr solving some new academic or urban crime in each new volume, ably assisted by his down-to-earth lover Leaky... followed by the TV show... ah, well.)

Equally misleadingly, Delany's "Disclaimer" calls The Mad Man "a pornotopic fantasy."[12] It's true that hundreds of pages are devoted to the sort of social activity whose description is usually called "graphic" (as opposed to "muddled"? to "verbal"?), and it's true that all the material of the novel has some connection with sex. But the connections are by no means always direct. Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Almira Adler gets no fuck scenes, for example.

No, aside from the surprisingly large percentage of very nice people who character it, the world implied by the novel, and the genre it seems to inhabit, is unmistakably that of mainstream realism. Which is a considerably more startling way of presenting this material than porn fantasy would've been.

Admittedly, to some readers obtaining an apartment by careful application of blow jobs and Myers rum may seem like "fantasy." Or it may simply, as Marr says, be New York, for, among many other things, The Mad Man is a valentine to the city. Magic consists of remembering your materials; over and over, Marr is rescued (and endangered) by the special power of that magic in New York, where values are not so much proscriptive as descriptive. In Delany's novel of 1980s gay life, I don't find the dance clubs, faux-Western bars, and West Village brunches with which I was familiar, but such divergences of shared experience are precisely typical of New York, a hive made of interlaced hives, hidden to each other despite their blissful blatancy. In New York, focus -- the active component of observation -- is everything, as brought out in the book's frequent (and frequently undercut) division of the world into alert "cocksuckers" and oblivious "baseball players."

In the philosophy of language, the study of this sort of contextual truth, of meanings which are dependent on the context of speaker and listener, is called pragmatics (in contrast to semiotics and syntactics). In the 1960s, pragmatics was more-or-less initiated as a branch of mathematical linguistics by the nearest "real life" model for The Mad Man's Tim Hasler: Richard Montague, a young (if not as young as Hasler) gay philosopher, murdered in 1971 by persons unknown. Under the banner of pragmatics, Montague and his students treated such themes as ethical obligation, scientific explanation, and the practical consequences of belief, all in stringently logical terms.

Montague is not Hasler. But there are intriguing connections between Montague and Hasler, and between Montague's work and The Mad Man, as witness this 1986 treatment of "Montague grammar":

We may safely state that sentences with "generic" terms Man, or a man, and Woman, or a woman, when they occur as subject terms in syntactically unambiguous purely juxtapositional sentences, [...] cannot, given the said syntactical conditions, be given a clear meaning-in-critical-use, i.e. they have no logic.
-- p. 64, E. M. Barth & R. T. P. Wiche, Problems, Functions and Semantic Roles
As if to demonstrate practical applications of this insight, in the course of The Mad Man, Marr learns that child abuse, sexual harassment of students, and "putting things like that in your mouth" can only be considered evils in context, rather than categorically. However, these contextual specifics of life are the stuff of memoir and fiction rather than of categorical logic. One of the central notions of The Mad Man is that philosophy can aid rethinking of cultural values, even if that rethinking cannot be fully expressed in academically "philosophical" form.

The title of The Mad Man reflects on all of Delany's porn. Sex, though defined as unspeakable or even "unimaginable" madness, actually enables and expresses sanity. The sizable bulk of the book is stuffed with reflections on the relationship between madness and systematic thinking; a process of reflection which can be defined as "the philosophic life." No system is self-consistent; simply to live is to be in flux between what has been defined as sane and what has been abjured as unspeakable. And therefore, to follow desire outside culturally dictated boundaries -- though never, of course, outside culturally determined boundaries -- is to enable survival within the culture. The Mad Man is an instruction manual for the sane use of one's madness.

Which suggests considerably wider-reaching effects than the "self-help" book Marr self-mockingly imagines writing. Equinox is a fantasy with flatly cartoonish characters; The Mad Man is a realistic novel where sex involves fantasizing oneself into cartoonish roles. Yet The Mad Man's reality is what Equinox's characters long for: a life of directly expressed passion. With all its disarming assuredness, The Mad Man is Delany's most thoroughgoing push towards a "new age of moral chaos."

Delany's ambitions are hinted at by the titles and epigraphs of the novel's five sections. Drawn from Tristan und Isolde, Novalis's "Hymns to Night," Nietzsche, and Yeats, they're a garland of night-for-day, bad-for-good inversions. In "Atlantis Revisited: Some Notes on Hart Crane," Delany summarizes the central trope:

to those of a certain sensibility (often those in deep grief, or those with a secret sorrow not to be named before the public) the day, sunlight, and the images of air and light that usually sign pleasure are actually hateful and abhorrent. Night alone is the time such souls can breath freely, be their true selves, and come into their own. For them, night is the beautiful, wondrous, and magical time -- not the day.
This double paradox of "expressed/secret treasure/sorrow" is one of the codes which traditionally indicate homosexual content. At first one might think its use here wholly ironic: Marr certainly can't be accused of an overdeveloped sense of privacy! There's no need to hide one's actions when society is so intent on repressing knowledge of them.

But Marr begins his story and his post-college life in New York in a state of secret mourning for a lover killed in a car accident, a lover who cannot be acknowledged. And if more secret treasures of sorrow are needed, plague can certainly provide them. Darkness spreads over the book not from the narrator's descent into "depravity" but from the slow spread of AIDS information and misinformation. For years at a time, Marr lives every day convinced that he will die, and that his death will be due to what's keeping him spiritually alive. This is tragic Romanticism with a vengeance.

The Mad Man doesn't make much direct use of the "wondrous realm of night" trope; many memorable sequences take place in broad daylight. Instead, the allusions point to a more general transfiguration of values, in which hell's lost pleasures are regained via the hostile terminology of the angels. "Nigger," "piece of shit," and "dummy" are endearments; the "top" wears the dog collar while the "bottom" has the power; what is "low" is what is desirable.

"Goddamn, man --" with my arm around little Tony's broad shoulders -- "That's great -- man! That's really fuckin' low -- it really looks fuckin' good."
And, you know, my dick had gone from half hard to almost painful inside my jeans.
-- The Mad Man, p. 382
And Marr is redeemed (at least twice) through his association with "the damned" -- who are, of course, blessed. Both the penultimate cathartic tragedy and the ultimate comedic happiness of The Mad Man imply a vision of insular utopia familiar from science fiction of all political persuasions: a wise community, whether of scientists, telepaths, or aliens, which the outside world would wish to destroy. Cocksuckers Are Slans. (Come to think of it, the cognitive leap when one learns that the guy walking down the street with a beer can might be drinking literal-not-figurative piss is a very science-fictional effect....)

Delany breaks past the miasma lingering around hoary "transgressive" clichés not only through his refreshing assumption of centrality, but also through his attention to racial and economic boundaries. When it came to reversing value systems, Novalis, Nietzsche, and Wagner all drew the line at class divisions. Only the Delphic Oracle's punning advice to Diogenes, "Change the currency," points towards a re-valuation so thoroughgoing. John Marr begins the novel as a very experienced young man, sexually. Inasmuch as he becomes more "degraded" in the course of his story, inasmuch as he's "corrupted" by Hasler's example, it's not by the addition of new acts to his repertoire, but by his growing involvement with homeless men. In a democracy, there is no ignoble rot.

In this realistic transformation of realism's traditional morals, sex and desire aren't linked with death; only disease and money are. Considering how thoroughly out John Marr is, and his proclivity for propositioning potentially-psychotic strangers, one would think him at constant risk of bashing. But all the violence in the book results from commercial interests: the two would-be bashers are livid because Marr doesn't pay for sex, and the two murders are triggered by the incursion of charitable horniness into a hustling zone.[13]

Money inevitably becomes eroticized in capitalism. Which brings us to the most truly fantasy-like character of the book, Mad Man Mike, the King of Riverside Park. Mike -- "the Mad Man" -- was Hasler's last lover and is the most blatant source of the book's (or books') title. He plays father-figure and articulate mentor, Priapus incarnate and representative of the pre-diluvian age. Scarringly familiar with the dangers of erotic economics, Mad Man Mike has rather brilliantly evolved an approach which privileges erotic play instead of privileging exchange value.

Yet, at the same time, Marr insists on the Mad Man's violence, frightening unpredictability, and inability to communicate. Like the absurd nightmarish chimera of the novel's Proem, he's an unvisualizable unfathomable creature who's invaded from another sort of book (Hogg, perhaps) to focus energy in this one. The unspeakable mirror image of the deeply articulate Marr (whom he assaults "in the mouth"), Mad Man Mike still manages to provide social guidance and healing fantasy to his flock. In other words, he fulfills the role of the novelist in a non-literate environment.

The existence of such a role is key to the contrast between The Mad Man's and Hogg's emotional effects: John Marr always assumes the possibility of communication. It may be heavily coded or playful communication, but it's usually effective enough for all that. Marr's narrative, The Mad Man, is one outcome of that assumption.

Why take the risk of communicating such (potentially) unwelcome messages? Delany demonstrates by results, most obviously in the 110-page letter which Marr sends to a straight-and-clueless friend from college. A novella of mystic awakening, the letter details Marr's urine-soaked sex life, reflects on its meaning in the time of AIDS, and also reflects on his need to describe it. True, his friend at first views the letter as evidence of insanity; but years later, after making a number of previously unimaginable changes in her own life, she finds it perfectly sensible.

Similarly, Tim Hasler's honesty about desire -- his own and others -- was the most important lesson given to his student, Pete Darmushklowksy, helping to transform Darmushklowksy from a frustrated boor to a contented sweetheart who, in turn, "everybody thinks [is] some kind of madman" because of his own honesty. Hasler's journal of "degrading" sexual encounters is an impetus for Marr's thoroughly fulfilling experiences with the homeless. Even "the Old Poet," Almira Adler, who through most of her life has repressed any interest in Hasler's sexual practices, hoping they would just go away, finishes by accepting (if not particularly enthusiastically) the value of "talking about things like that."

Or, more succinctly, if "SILENCE = DEATH," then "EXPRESSION = LIFE." John Marr has escaped death (not alone) to tell us, and to help us escape as well.

(Speaking of logically invalid generalizations....)


[10]Among many other contemporary critics, Delany himself has discussed such codes at length -- in his essay, "Atlantis Revisited: Some Notes on Hart Crane," for example.

[11]However, all quotes and page references are from the heavily revised (and impressively improved) 1996 paperback edition of The Mad Man.

[12]The reader who finds the "surely self-evident reasons" of The Mad Man's "Disclaimer" a bit disingenuous may be confirmed in her suspicion by Equinox's thoroughly over-the-top "Note of Moral Intent," which assures us that "the dictates of the present's greater sense of moral responsibility" have been taken into account by adding "an even hundred years" to every age under 18 mentioned in the novel.

[13]In a book so dedicated to violation of taboos, The Mad Man's treatment of the sex industry seems oddly puritanical. Compare Pat Califia's "Whoring in Utopia": "Especially in utopia, there would be no reason for someone to play the martyr and try to be sexually satisfied [as defined by orgasm] by an act of charity. Cash would even the bargain and keep the fetishist from becoming an erotic welfare case." (Public Sex, p. 245) This resonates uncomfortably with Marr's self-characterization as one who believes it's better to give than to receive. But since The Mad Man is a book about academics and the homeless, some antagonism towards working stiffs is probably unavoidable.


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Copyright 1996 Ray Davis